It was a Tuesday morning, and I was in my usual Zoom attire: the t-shirt I’d worn to bed, a Patagonia quarter zip, and a Vivienne Westwood necklace to add a formal touch. The week had become busier than the previous, and I had no doubt that the next would top it. At least I had a new column to look forward to. In fact, I was on the brink of interviewing the first guest: Yuanjun Chen.
Chen would consider themselves as multifaceted, and one who doesn’t set limits. They dabble in photography, painting, drawing, printmaking, curating art shows and doing collaborative work with people who have the same understanding and perspectives.
Chen has been gearing up for their new exhibit at the Star Deli in Benson. For this retrospective, Chen would be showcasing not just their own art, but the art of other creatives who wanted to be a part of the showing. One of the main vessels of the presentation was the Quarantine Calendar Project, a collaboration between friends of Chen’s residing across the globe that took place from April to June of 2020.
“I have friends around the world and I’m from a region where SARS took place,” says Chen. “SARS was like the corona virus outbreak, when I was in primary school, probably second or third grade, I got a phone call in my darkened living room saying an outbreak was going on and to be careful, and to stay inside.”
Chen says the idea of the Quarantine Calendar Project came very naturally. They knew the situation was going to be bad because they experienced instances of family in the hospital during the SARS outbreak. They also knew friends around the world would have a connection, memory, or understanding of something like this.
“I was like, ‘let’s take photographs every day for the next two months, one photograph every day,’ says Chen. “In that kind of situation, you have to think about what photograph you want to use everyday that represents what happened, and I wanted to see if there was something…if there was a trend that happened during the 70 days around all these different places in the world.”
Chen started to notice people capturing themselves staying home more often, spending more time with their family and even some started to learn new hobbies like cooking.
“I wanted the project to be as casual and stable as possible, ” says Chen. “The reason why I wanted to do this is because when I talk about historical events with my family, people tend to use the same language. I had an idea; I know it has value, so I had to do it”
Eddie: Where did the love for photography come from and how has your inspirations shaped your work?
Yuanjun: How I got deeper into photography is when I looked through my parents’ photographs- my dad, he was an art student in the 80s, so he traveled all round China to draw, paint and photographed a lot of the countryside of China.
Eddie: So, you would consider your dad a core influence?
Yuanjun: Yeah, my dad influences me with how I feel and acknowledges the importance of documenting part of what happened. It’s not going to be the same in a decade or two. We ask people about the 80s and how life was back then. It’s kind of very distant from us, but when we looked at the photograph, we really did change a lot in society. So, a lot of my photographs I want to think about, I don’t take the photos for what it is right now, I take them for what it will represent in five to 10 years later.
Eddie: I looked at your portfolio, and I loved the bicycle series that you did a while back, are you a biker yourself?
Yuanjun: I like to bike, and I think more people should get into biking. The city should create more bike lanes. With biking in the region, one could get a better understanding of the landscape and the geography. I have been biking here for two years. I feel like I know Omaha a lot better than students who drive. I want to understand the neighborhoods and the people in the community through biking around.
Eddie: I look at the photography you have on display on social media on your website and I note a lot of candid’s and photographs that depict current events. Do you favor that organic-ness of photography?
Yuanjun: Yes! The photograph is not just about looking good so it can be posted, it’s also about me as a creator and you as the individual – we must be here in the same place with the same goal in mind to have the photograph be able to reflect more of you and the moment more than anything else.
Eddie: It’s interesting that you say it that way especially with another moment happening like the Overturning of Roe V. Wade, and the rallies happening in the Omaha area. Do you sense the historical value of the photos you capture?
Yuanjun: Going out to photograph what’s going on is something that I do out of nature. I travel to places where I get to see different things and at the same time a lot of historical events are happening around us. Now we probably don’t see those moments as historical but at one point it will be.
Eddie: We were messaging the other day about the importance of art, why it is so crucial to highlight the concept of art, and what is important about photography today. Do you have any words regarding how we should be looking at art beyond the surface?
Yuanjun: Try to look deeper, an art may be beautiful, but there is a deeper meaning behind it. Sometimes I like to do works that have deeper meaning in it and I don’t necessarily want to speak out loud about my work because I think if I just explain my way of telling you how to think about it, then you don’t think about my art in any other way. There are also works that you look at and wonder about what it means, and you can’t do anything about it, people get it sometimes and People don’t get it sometimes. Partially I struggle with how much I want to tell.
During discussion about our collective inspirations and favorite artists I started name dropping the likes of Steven Meisel and others. Chen notes their fascination with the work of Marcel Duchamp just by thinking about the box he was in and how he had so many layers into his art.
Chen says they don’t know the direct connection to that of Duchamp and their own work, but I will be the first to say that I see it. Duchamp took simple objects and applied meaning to them and called it their art. Chen can take photography for instance and capture a moment in time. Beyond the photograph there are layers to what Chen’s specific point of view is. We as viewers still shot but it goes beyond the visual, there are layers of historical significance, and the importance of the photo. A candid photo may be just a candid, but it’s reductive to consider it as just that.
You can find more of Yuanjun’s work at their website, yuanjunchen.art, and at their Instagram account, @suicide_eggs.